They are everywhere: in riverbanks, on glaciers, in deserts, in fish populations, even in the air we breathe. And these are just a few of the places where scientists have found microplastics, plastic debris roughly the size of a sesame seed that move easily through the environment, the impact of which remains somewhat of a mystery, Northeastern University experts say.
Microplastics continue to be highlighted in the news for being discovered in various human body parts, including the lungs, blood, and even the placenta. These tiny particles result from bigger substances, mainly large plastic debris, breaking down. They pass easily through water filters, make their way into bodies of water, and potentially threaten aquatic life, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And because plastics are made to remain durable, they take years to erode, and microplastics maintain a lasting presence on Earth.
“Plastic was designed to be a material that breaks down slowly, so it can certainly break down into smaller and smaller particles, but those particles don’t disappear. They just get smaller and smaller and move around, no matter how much erosion happens,” explains Samuel Munoz, Northeastern professor of marine and environmental sciences and civil and environmental engineering.
Munoz’s area of study is geology, specifically how plastics and sediments move around the environment, where they get stored, and why they accumulate where they do. He notes that with countries’ escalating plastic production for the past several decades, microplastics’ prominence in ecosystems is an increasing concern. In 2017, more than 300 million tons of plastic was produced, compared to only 1.5 million tons in 1950, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“It’s a growing problem, because our production of plastics has been increasing since the 1950s and will increase in the coming decades, unless we change something,” Munoz explains.
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